The body is the only thing that we carry with us from the moment we are born until the moment we die. It plays a central role in our perception of the world and in shaping our experiences of reality. We might lose consciousness of our minds, but our bodies stay with us. But ironically and eerily, we are oblivious to our own bodies most of the time, throughout most of our lives.
Think of the eyes. We use them to gaze into the world and rely on them to gain access to reality, but we can never see our own eyes. In fact, our head is the arguably the most crucial part of the entire body, yet it is the one thing on our body that we perceive the least (aside from our viscera). Our brain and all of our other sensory organs that are attached to our head are what we use to gain access to the world, and yet we can never really see them (photographs and mirrors don’t count because they are always filtered and distorted). What about everything else that goes on inside our bodies? Again, we are unable to explain how we perform the simplest of bodily acts. We are even less aware of the internal workings of our bodies – our organs and all the chemical and physiological processes that keep us alive.
The body flies outside and away from itself in its concern towards the world. Think of the hands and how they extend and take flight outside of themselves into the external world of materiality. So much of what constitutes the external world is made up of entities, objects, and substances that are engineered by and for the hands (door knobs, light switches, handles and so on). Look around your room and think about how things are arranged and spatially as well as temporally organized to give access to your hands so that they can be within your reach. Think of our legs and feet and the way we use them to maneuver our bodies spatially in and around the world. Much of our world – the pavement of the road, the spatial design of our architecture, stairs and steps, shoes, socks, et cetera are designed in accordance with how our legs are built, maneuvered, and finessed. Even foods we eat are made, picked out, and cooked in ways that corresponds to the structure of our mouths (and hands), the structure of our taste buds and digestive systems, and so on.
Technology is merely an extension of our body and of our senses when they have reached their embodied and natural capacity in limited means. The hammer and the shovel are the extension of our hands. The wheels are the extension of our legs, the microscopes and binoculars are the extensions of our eyes, and the computer is the extension of our brains and nervous systems.
So as you can see, much of our everyday reality is organized as an extension of, and in accordance to and response to our bodies. But despite all of the contributions and effects our body has upon the world, our body is ABSENT – it is forgotten, alienated, concealed, ambiguous, and uncontrollable.
This is because the body itself, when embodied within our consciousness, intentionality, and awareness, are largely transparent. This is especially true of a healthy body. My body itself, when healthy, is transparent, and it is in a sort of flight outside of and beyond itself. In other words, you know when a body is functioning at its optimum state when you barely notice its own presence and inner workings.
I think there are several ways in which we take notice of the fleshy materiality of the body.
The first is through malfunctioning and bodily breakdown. During acts of pain, the body becomes less transparent and more noticeable. For instance, the digestive system and its inner workings are largely unconscious and transparent until suddenly we eat something bad for the system that causes it to be in pain. All of a sudden, our “invisible” organs become “visible”, as we become aware of our own systems and visceral structures. Again, the one thing that we don’t see when we look around is our eyes. But when our vision is defective and dysfunctional, when we see spots in our eyes or if our vision becomes blurry, we take notice of our own eyes and come to terms with ourselves that our vision needs to be corrected.
I think the same concept can be applied mentally and in language. A healthy mentality is a mind that barely notices itself. When things are going well for us, we barely think about our own thoughts. Most of the time, we just zone out and turn on auto pilot as we let the world go by us without thinking about anything in particular. It is when we become distressed, depressed, and anxious that our thoughts become noticeable, when our minds turn to themselves for self-reflection and contemplation. In other words, it’s probably fair to say that it doesn’t require much thought to feel mentally neutral. In fact, it is probably true that happiness requires very little thought. But when we become gloomy, those thoughts begin accumulating in our minds. This is why we stereotype about the mindless happy campers and the depressed and anguished artists and intellectuals. It’s also why we always ask people who look desolated and gloomy – “Hey, what’s wrong? Tell me what’s on your mind”, or tell them to just not to think so much.
Language is also a form of an absent body. It’s the materiality of thought whose natural function is to be transparent. Language’s own sense of alienation and absence makes room for thoughts. When we hear an eloquent speaker talk, when we become emotionally and intellectually charged with what he or she is saying, we barely pay attention to his choice of words because we are absorbed in concept, not the specific words of his or her speech. It is only when language breaks down, when speaker stutters or dwells on certain words that we become more aware of language and words themselves. When we sit down to read a book, and as we get lost in it, the words on the page disappear as I am simply dealing with meanings and concepts. It is only when we find misspells and during the moment of break down that suddenly the materiality of the word re-appears.
Another way that our body reappears from its state of transparency is through sex and moments of sexual arousal. Sexuality is an interesting notion in this regard because it runs contrary to what I was talking about earlier when I was speaking of bodily breakdowns and how we only notice our bodies when they are malfunctioning. But for the penis and the vagina, the opposite is true. I think the sexual organs are one of the only parts of our bodies that lack transparency when it is functioning normally. We only become aware of our penises and how uncomfortable it is to have a whole package stuffed inside our pants when we have erections. The same could be said to girls. I’m sure the vaginas are transparent for the most part. However, they suddenly reappear when they are on their periods or when they are sexually aroused – both are signs of fertility and a healthy functioning body. During sex and masturbation, we deliberately highlight parts of our bodies to massage and manipulate. During intense phases of sexual pleasures, we emotionally and physically become very aware of our own, as well as our partner’s body parts. During orgasm, our whole body reappears and re-enters from its normal states of alienation and ambiguity, as it discloses itself materially and even spiritually to not only the other person, but to itself as a whole as we “let ourselves go” and put our whole bodies into the intense spasms.
Lastly, the body reveals itself through exercise and physical training. It is impossible to feel the effects of a workout without feeling your own bodies at work. Aside from bodily breakdowns and malfunctioning, the structure of our bodies – our muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments are never as exposed and revealed to us and others as when we are exercising and playing sports. We highlight parts of our flesh and bones and become aware of their movements and structures, potentialities and actualities when we pick and choose the focal point of our bodies in accordance to our needs in the gym or on the playing field. For instance, we pick and choose what muscle groups to target when we lift weights and we feel the burning sensations of our flesh and bones as we pump out each repetition for days afterwards. We become aware of our own bodies and its potentialities and limits when we have to use it as a tool or as a weapon to go up against another body during a competition. This could not be said better when we see gym goers flashing and flexing their own muscles in front of the mirror for their own viewing pleasure. If you lift weights at all, you are familiar with the sense of fulfillment you get (or lack of it) when you target a specific muscle group and flex it as hard as you can under particular light in order to reveal to yourself, and to the rest of the world, your diligence, hard work, and what you are made out of.
In short, our bodies are for the most part, absent and taken for granted. We are mostly unconscious of what goes on with our bodies externally and internally. As we go on with our daily lives, our bodies are forgotten, uncontrollable, alienated, and obscured. But there are several instances in which our bodies can be remembered and reappear in and for itself. A large part of how bodies reappear from obscurity is through the negative aspects of dysfunctioning and breakdowns. However, there are other ways in which the body can be remembered, such as acts of sexual pleasures and through physical training. These positive aspects of bodily habituations should be valued, assessed, and exercised.